Kevin Doyle: ‘Watt tried to shout ‘stop’, now he may need a soft landing’

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Kevin Doyle: ‘Watt tried to shout ‘stop’, now he may need a soft landing’

  


Robert Watt said the State could be left with an ‘obsolete asset’ over the NBP. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Robert Watt said the State could be left with an ‘obsolete asset’ over the NBP. Picture: Steve Humphreys

When the anonymous bean counters find themselves on the front page there’s trouble afoot for everybody.

Robert Watt is central cog in the working of government – but his role is to be heard and not seen. Yet unlike many of his counterparts, the secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure is not shy about being in the spotlight.

Back in 2007, he wrote a newspaper article predicting the Irish economy was heading for a soft landing. At the time he warned against an “alarmist” view and said people shouldn’t buy into “our impending doom”. Colourfully, he added: “Breakfast Roll Man needn’t panic just yet.”

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When asked about this piece earlier this year, he told the Irish Independent that “nobody predicted the turmoil on international markets”.

That column is long forgotten, but readers may be more familiar with his recent appearance at the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about the spiralling cost of the National Children’s Hospital.

Even before he got into the committee room, he was overheard describing the assembled TDs and senators as a “mob”.

Mr Watt said such projects should not be announced based on cost “guesstimates”.

He went on to reference the National Broadband Plan (NBP), cryptically saying: “I have views, but any comment would be career-changing.”

We now know those views. In a six-page dismissal of the NBP, he described it as “a massive leap of faith”. The top civil servant believes there are “unprecedented risks” associated with pumping €3bn in subsidising rural broadband.

In advice to his boss, Minister Paschal Donohoe, he suggested the State could be left with an “obsolete asset”.

These views were formed against the backdrop of events at the hospital.

Speaking privately yesterday, a number of ministers were highly critical of Mr Watt’s attitude to the project.

One said: “He thinks he’s running the government.” Another saw it as a “pay back” from Mr Watt for his failed attempt at becoming the Central Bank governor.

“The memo was written to do the maximum political damage,” the Cabinet source said.

Meanwhile, Opposition leaders are using the advice to declare the NBP bankrupt, but consciously stopping short of calling for it to be scrapped. They know derailing the project now would save money and cost votes. They can’t shout ‘stop’. Robert Watt tried that and it could be career-changing.

Irish Independent

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